Guns and Missiles and Toys, Oh My! : Television: Can anyone stop the mayhem and violence attached to family programming? Frustrations mount.

Speaking of turkeys. . . .

Even if all personal firearms were banned across the board in the U.S., Americans would still be confronted by the biggest assault weapon of all.

Television.

It's the nation's fast-firing electronic Uzi that assaults nonstop, spraying its mayhem message relentlessly and indiscriminately.

Take the case of Gary Wosk of Sylmar. When a father sits down with his 2-year-old son to watch the kid-oriented "Lassie Come Home"--a warm, sweet, kindly old 1943 film about a collie's tortuous return journey to the family that was forced to give her up--he doesn't expect to see a commercial for violent toys.

But that's exactly what Wosk says happened to his toddler son and him on a recent Saturday afternoon. "They were selling missiles and guns--showing them being launched and fired--and all sorts of things like that," said Wosk about the commercial that ran on Disney-owned KCAL-TV Channel 9 during the sentimental Lassie movie.

Wosk was outraged. He says that he still has received no explanation for the commercial's placement 11 days after calling Channel 9 to complain and being promised an accounting. "I didn't think they'd do that on a Disney station," he said.

Welcome to the real world of Mickey Mouse.

It can be a perilous minefield when a parent seeks to shield their young children from discomforting gory sights, sounds and messages. To say nothing of shielding themselves from material that--even if it doesn't mass produce violent criminals--just makes viewers feel lousy.

Violence in programs is the sexy, fail-safe issue of the day, one that has posturing politicians lining up for the spotlight. Lashing out at airwaves violence has become the fast-rolling apple pie/motherhood bandwagon of the 1990s. Yet even if a program is relatively nonviolent, there are the commercial breaks to worry about.

Promos for movies, for example, "can defeat parents' best efforts to protect their children from violence on television," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) noted last month. "While a parent can prevent children from watching a TV show which is known to be violent," he continued, "it is impossible for a parent to prevent a child from watching a violent or offensive scene when it is part of promos or commercials tucked into an otherwise nonviolent family-oriented show."

All true. Flash back to Sunday's episode of the family series "seaQuest," during which NBC ran a promo for "A Family Torn Apart," its movie that night about a teen-ager's grisly slaying of his parents.

Both the movie and print ads for it carried a warning: "Due to some violent content, parental discretion is advised." Fine. Yet NBC still felt comfortable running the promo during a series with large appeal for kids.

To some viewers, seeing the promo was probably like having a trailer for an R-rated movie precede the G-rated movie they bought tickets to see.

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The promo for "A Family Torn Apart" consisted of fast cuts, briefly showing the boy approaching with a knife, then showing the youth's soon-to-be victim, his father. Although no violent act was shown, the promo conveyed a fearful tone through its visuals and the tension in its announcer's voice.

This was no isolated incident on NBC, which does this sort of thing routinely, particularly during a ratings sweeps month like November.

On Monday night, in that regard, viewers awaiting NBC's benign 8 p.m. comedy series, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," were hit by a combined promo. Half of it advertised the network's 9 p.m. movie, "Beyond Suspicion," starring Corbin Bernsen as a serial murderer and Markie Post as his endangered wife. The other half trumpeted KNBC-TV Channel 4's gussied-up story about a character in the movie on its 11 p.m. news.

This movie and the print ads that advertised it also bore violence warnings, as did the promo that ran several times early Monday night. Backed by tingly music, it included three quick flashes of lovemaking, a shot of Bernsen lifting a gun, and then one of a menacing Bernsen whispering to a frightened Post: "I killed a man." Added the announcer: "Then at 11, meet the federal agent who stopped the madman's 22-year killing spree. . . ."

The promo was repeated at commercial break midway through "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and then at the end of "Blossom," the comedy that followed at 8:30.

Even viewers who weren't watching in the presence of children may have felt violated, the victims of an unwelcome intruder. As adults, perhaps they wanted to spend an hour of relatively serene TV watching, isolated from savagery. But when it comes to much of television, there apparently is no escape.

What a difference 11 months make.

Last December, responding to pressure from the public and Congress, NBC joined ABC and CBS in issuing "standards for the depiction of violence in television programs." The networks stated, among other things, that:

"The scheduling of any program, commercial or promotional material, including those containing violent depictions, should take into consideration the nature of the program, its content and the likely composition of the intended audience."

Thus, the only explanation for NBC running violence-pitched promos during family programs appears to be that it took all of the above into consideration--and just didn't give a damn.

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You always hate to see the government push its way into this, but when drowning in an ocean of mayhem you instinctively reach out for the first available hand. In this case, it may belong to Sen. Levin. He has authored a bill that would require local stations, networks and cable operators to keep commercial spots for at least 30 days after they have been aired, and make copies available to the public.

Scheduled to be acted upon in 1994, the proposed legislation wouldn't automatically stifle thoughtlessly aired ads and promos, but would ensure that the damning evidence be kept on file for public scrutiny and potential action. Guns--especially smoking guns--are something that television understands.

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